|Published on: Dec 11, 2001|
|Right after the events of September 11th, one of our members (Jennifer Corriero) connected with a young Canadian (Adriana) who had recently returned back to Canada after being in Afghanistan for several months! After hearing a few perspectives on 'Life in Afghinistan', a meeting was set for an interview to take place. This article has been written in interview format for members to learn a bit more about what life is like in Afghanistan, and what Adriana did while she was there. She had so much to say, and this is a great article that everyone should read!
Why did you go to Afghanistan?
I was intrigued about that part of the world. I was feeling
adventurous and wanted to go somewhere exciting and exotic.
I wanted to be inspired, because I had heard that the Afghans
were passionate and dedicated people. They turned out to be full
of hope and optimism that gave everyone who worked with them a
fresh outlook on the challenges they faced. I went to Afghanistan
as part of the Centre for Human Settlements. I was the Project
Manager (it was Swiss funded). What I was supposed to do was
strengthen community-based organisations. I was inspired be a
colleague and felt it was really important for women to go even
though they would face a lot of repression.I had no idea what I was expecting from it. I didn't think there'd be many international workers there. I thought it was going to be an intense year of somewhat solitude and isolation. Emotionally, I was hoping there would be no drastic changes so that I could come out of it still knowing who I was. I also had some concerns about my security, with images that my parents kept on reminding me of; land mines in the streets and that you'd have to be ducking or fighting all the time, constantly. Many of my concerns were laid to rest when I got there.I had spent some time in Pakistan, wearing the traditional clothes (not my Canadian clothes). I had also learned some of the social conventions, which was useful. Luckily, I entered with a friend who had been to Afghanistan before. I remember I was so concerned about my (shalwar chamise.look up sp.), because the wind was blowing and my s.c. kept on flying upwards, and I thought "I'm so indecent", because you arrive and you have to go to the Taliban checkpoint. With all these rules, you didn't know how strict it was going to be. The landscape was unbelievable; it was all mud and brown. I think it really represented the part of Afghanistan I was in, the way it was so simple and so unbelievably startling and beautiful.
I went to have my interview with the Taliban Minister of Foreign Affairs, to explain why I was coming to the country, and what job I was going to do. I was really nervous about that, because it was a real interview with the Taliban. A young doctor came and gave me a briefing about what I should say.
They escorted me behind this curtain, and I sat there for about fifteen
minutes, thinking, "where's my interview". What was happening was my office administrator was being interviewed on my behalf, because he wouldn't talk to me as a woman. My interview consisted of the Taliban coming behind the curtains, taking my passport, looking at me, saying in basic English "You are Adriana?". That was my first interview with the Taliban, so it kind of seemed so surreal. Later on I had more face to face contact in interviews.I'd say that overall the Taliban treated me with respect. To the regular
Taliban officials that I met, I was a guest in their country. They also told me not to break rules, and when I did (which I did a few times), I'd plead that I didn't know what I was doing, and they'd slap my wrists and tell me not to do it again, although I could have gotten kicked out of the
country. The Afghan men were really open and sharing. I think they
appreciated the fact that I worked with their sisters, their mothers, their daughters. They liked having "internationals" that would listen to their views, because many didn't. The women loved me, because me and my organisation made then feel important. I was received very well and it was very hard to leave at the end.The main language of the area I was in is known as Dari or Farsi -- it's kind of like basic Persian. There's a different language in the south of Afghanistan that I wasn't really supposed to speak, which is Pashtu. I got there and I didn't know any Dari. I had this amazing 21-year-old translator. More of the men knew English, but with the women, I needed my translator. My accent was horrible, but I knew the key words. I knew the numbers and key words, so I could catch things my translator missed, or didn't relay.That's tough, I mean, there are a lot of personal experiences that are memorable.
One day I was having a horrible day, for various different reasons. I needed a break, I was trying to go to Kabul and they wouldn't let me leave the city. I was so depressed, because I hadn't left in about two and a half months and I needed a change of environment. I'd also been getting in "trouble" a lot lately, and I'd gotten my wrists slapped many times. I went to the main women's NGO just to sit and talk. And it was nice, because it was like going home and talking about my shitty day. I just talked about what a bad mood I was in. There, you take your shoes off when you enter a room, because it's disrespectful not to. When I went to leave, my shoes were gone. One of the girls, Nadia, said "Oh no, it didn't happen!", and I said, "What?". They told me about a beggar woman who steals shoes. You see I loved these shoes, and I was really distressed. It was really an elaborate inside joke they were all doing. They had a whole story, like 'The Case of the Missing Shoes', planned out. They had all these women coming up to me, saying, "oh, one day I had my shoes taken".
And these kids said they'd go out looking for them. You have to imagine these women in burqas and with these little kids running up and looking at their shoes. They said they'd put out a reward. It was this huge joke played for the day. Finally at the end of the day, they gave my shoes back. It was all to make me laugh. The sense of community there, that they felt comfortable enough to tease me, it just lightened my spirit.
Another memory was when this women's group finally got the chance to open their own building. It was a big deal and I'd done a lot of work for that. It was also the day that one of the main women leaders was leaving to go to Pakistan. She had cancer and she needed to go for treatment in Pakistan. Not everyone knew, because it's hard to have people leave Afghanistan against the Taliban. We were just saying she was going for medical reasons and not to stay.
Only five of us knew, and I was very honoured that the women let me in, because they didn't want the UN to know either (for many reasons). But they let me in because of friendship and camaraderie. And it was very touching to have five of us kind of sit there and cry together, give gifts, and take pictures of each other.
We start (and end) every big group meeting with the opening of the Qu'ran, where they recite a bit of the Qu'ran of Prayer. And it was so beautiful having this woman sing, we're crying. People just thought we were crying because we were so moved, but really we were crying because she was leaving.
Another thing is just fond memories of sitting with the men. We'd sit around and talk, have a cigarette (which was a big thing, to have a smoke with a woman). At first, we'd stand across the courtyard from each other, but after a time, we began to hang out. Just the great conversations we would have, I can't put a concrete memory, but just that time. They stopped seeing me as a foreigner, but as a friend and a colleague.
For me, I saw the human face of the Afghan. I stopped seeing them as exotic and that was the best part. When they became real, they became friends. And it wasn't seeing them as the other, but just seeing them as normal.What I learned from Islam is that when you believe something, it affects everything in your life. When you believe something strongly, it should permeate your whole life. Not just religious, like for me, being an environmentalist, recycling and composting doesn't cut it, I need to do more. We only see the negative side of fundamentalism, but what fundamentalism means is how you see the world is intrinsic to how you live out your role in that world. And so if I'm a fundamental environmentalist, it doesn't mean I'm a fanatical environmentalist. We seem to make fundamental and fanatical synonymous.
I also learned a lot about respect and honour because that was huge for them. If you said, "I give you my word", that was something big. There are also so many things I learned about the culture, just so much.
But I also learned a lot about my job. I learned that a community is not homogeneous, it's a mix of different interests. It's very heterogeneous, very pluralistic. We have to listen to what the people who have to live with the results think is best. Not trying to take control and being at their level.Just as a human, September 11th, the tragedy, the terrorism, and the human death. What I would say is North America and the West having entered what the rest of the world lives in. Basically, we've kind of entered the world.
A lot of people in the world live under this threat and violence. It's an end to an age of innocence that I was kind of enjoying. One of the reasons I wanted to come back to Canada was because I was really tired of security issues and stuff. So, I think as a human, that profound sense of death and tragedy and violence and change is a significant and paramount shift that's happening. It's happening in the world and in worldview. Hopefully, it can be harnessed for good, but also, it can be harnessed for a lot of negative knee-jerk reactions.
I'd say on a personal level, as someone who'd just come back from Afghanistan, it was hard. I was just getting over my culture shock and to have this happen. There were people all around me talking about bombing Afghanistan and I said I was just there, "you're talking about my friends". So, I could relate a lot more to Afghanistan than to New York. How could I relate to World Trade Towers, with 110 storeys? I could relate to dirt roads, mud houses, and simple living. It was hard to hear Afghanistan (a place that I knew was so complex) talked about in such simple terms. People were throwing around things but they didn't know what they were talking about, making sweeping generalizations. And it was so real and raw for me that it made my culture shock hard.
Listening to military see them [my friends in Afghanistan] as collateral damage, which is the acceptable loss (human casualty) that you would accept for your victory was tough. And it's very hard to hear your friends and your colleagues described so impersonally when it was so personal for me.I worked with a lot with community groups, so usually I would get up at 7:30 or 8, take my shower, do all that. If I was in a good mood, eat my breakfast, which would probably just be bread and jam (we had a lot of food imported from Pakistan), along with my boiled and filtered water mixed with Tang so it wouldn't taste so disgusting. I'd put on my Afghan dress and walk to work on my own. One of the things I did every morning, was that I went around and said 'hello' to every single Afghan in the office, shaking hands, and making small chat. Then I might do a little bit of work. Then I'd get driven to one of the women's community centres, and we'd have different agendas of what we'd be talking about. I'd ask if there were any problems they were going through, what issues they were encountering, check up on how they were following up on some of the projects I'd asked for. I helped out a lot, for instance, to help them get outside funding for projects.
Every two weeks I'd go and have a meeting with the Taliban Labour and Social Affairs Minister, to inform him on the progress of my projects and what was going on, so he wouldn't think I was trying to pull something over his eyes. Sometimes I just sat with the women, they'd bring their babies, and we'd all just talk. Other times, we'd work on documenting reports. Then I'd get driven to go and have meetings with the men. We'd discuss projects they were working on. I'd always try to go and have lunch with the women or men at the UN office, and lunch would be rice and beans, sometimes meat. We'd have great conversations about my life in Canada, we'd have conversations about how it was before the Taliban, and how they'd been brought up, what they were doing before, their hopes for their country, different views on religion.
The afternoon was kind of similar to the morning. Then I'd go home around 7 PM, sometimes stopping by another international' house. We would do a lot of recreational things (like shooting hoops and movies were always a big thing). The curfew was at 9 PM for all internationals. When I got home, I'd talk to the people that I lived with, write letters, and read a lot. I'd go out and look at the stars, because you got a great view there. Every day seemed like the last, which is good sometimes, but also frustrating because you feel like you're running around on a treadmill.Well, I'll use the city where I was as a little microcosm. It was hard for
a lot of women who used to work, to have their freedoms, their standard of living, and choices gone. Some of them were threatened or harassed. Some of them turned on each other, which is one of the saddest things. That was rare and that was understandable in a way, these are survival strategies. Women would tell me of the pillaging and raping before, which is partly why it was so easy for the Taliban to take over key cities, because they promised peace, in a way. A lot of women were wearing burqas before because it was traditional and part of the culture, but also because you didn't want military commanders and soldiers to see how attractive you might be. There was no law that they couldn't just go to your house, break in, and just take you or your daughter. But unlike before, now, women (and men) are under strict laws.It's fairly black and white to say 'Taliban, bad. Northern Alliance, good'. I'm not saying the Taliban are good, not at all, but I think people are in it for different reasons. You have those that are "fundamentalists'" and those who are opportunists. The Northern Alliance isn't as heroic, it's good that they got the Taliban out, but there's a lot of lawlessness. They don't know how to govern any better than the Taliban did. Moreover, what I think the media is missing, is that the Afghans were fighting against the Taliban, the repressive regime. Not with violence but with their own civil society groups. The women were organising amongst themselves to have their daughters be educated, men's' groups were organising themselves to support their wives and their families, to educate their sons, to put in wealth. I mean, community life was alive. We tend to have this view that they're just a bunch of passive people waiting for the U.S. or international governments to help them. If anything, they've been doing things on their own for many years, and they've always relied on themselves. I'd say the international community has disappointed them in many ways. We see women as victims, which they are, but not helpless. They've been doing a lot of things, and making change, and though we may see them as small and minuscule, it's the small things that matter. How you make change in your everyday life that permeates things on a bigger scale is important, and Afghan women are a great example of this. The fact that they could keep on working on a daily basis was so inspiring to me. Just because you don't use violence, and you don't rise up that way, doesn't mean that you support them and it doesn't mean that you're not being subversive. There are different forms of civil disobedience. Keeping your spirit and your hope alive is the most important kind, your vision of the future is the most important thing you can have in a place like that. I think that's something that's not come across in the media, and that frustrates me.